Bionda Joop cannot conceal her happiness. As she is being interviewed, she initially hides her smile behind her hands, but soon bursts into joyful laughter as she tells of how her life has changed since the day reliable electricity arrived in her community.
Joop makes and sells cookies in Pokigron, a community of 600 people of African descent known as Maroons. In this area, located about three hours from Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname, electricity used to be available for a maximum of six hours a day, from 5 in the afternoon to 11 at night, using small diesel generators that depended on irregular shipments of fuel by ship or plane. Service was intermittent, low quality and polluting, as the motors belched unhealthy fumes.
Everything changed with the installation of a solar plant, which now provides clean and continuous energy for Pokigron’s inhabitants.
The impact can be measured by Joop’s smile. Round-the-clock power, something many urban dwellers take for granted, transformed her life and her business: her hands had been her only means of mixing the cookie dough. “Now that I have electricity, I can use a mixer. This has increased how many orders I can produce, and with it my income,” she explains. Access to reliable energy translated into better economic prospects, a source of development for her community that reflects an opportunity for the region.
“Bringing electricity to communities in isolated areas goes beyond installing solar panels. Access to electricity promotes the productive and social development of their inhabitants. That was what we saw in Suriname. Small businesses sprouted and grew,” says Jordi Abadal, a consultant with the Energy Division at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in Suriname.
There are some 130 remote hamlets like Pokigron in Suriname that until recently remained beyond the reach of the national power grid.
To overcome this problem, the IDB has been helping Suriname achieve energy sustainability by strengthening the State power utility and a process of rural electrification . With financing from the bank, access to this essential service has been expanded thanks to the installation of new transmission lines, distribution networks and mini solar networks. As a result, for the first time, communities such as Pokigron, Atjoni and Powakka now enjoy daylong access to clean electricity.
Women may be the biggest beneficiaries of this change since they were the most affected by the historical lag in access to energy. In Latin America and the Caribbean, women bear the brunt of the gap in access to modern electricity due to traditional gender roles.
“When there are no modern sources of energy, women and children suffer the worst consequences because they are the ones who spend a large number of hours a day looking for firewood. This limits their time for studying, recreation, or income-generating activities. Additionally, they are exposed to smoke from open stoves, which affects their health and makes them vulnerable to respiratory diseases, irritation of the eyes and throat, or headaches,” says IDB Energy Specialist Virginia Snyder.
It is no surprise that women have played an essential role in the success of electrification programs in Suriname. This burgeoning leadership is embodied by Muriel Fernández, a native of the Cassipora community, located two hours from the capital, crossing the Suriname River. Nicknamed “the Captain,” she led the discussions between the population of Cassiropa and EBS, the state electricity company, guaranteeing the empowerment of the inhabitants of the area during the process, as well as the search for solutions to help her neighbors meet the requirements for hooking up to the electrical service.
Thanks to their “Captain”, Cassipora was one of the first villages in the area to gain full access tothe benefits of this essential utility. Muriel and Bionda are just two examples of the benefits and opportunities that access to modern energy can bring to women, their families and communities.
Between 2000 and 2010, female income growth contributed to diminishing extreme poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean. Access to energy can influence educational, social, cultural and economic changes . As women are important agents of change, considering them in the design of energy policies, programs and projects can lead to important transformations.
“Providing electricity to isolated areas reduces the economic vulnerability of lower-income families. These projects not only bring light to illuminate communities; they also develop their identity and resilience with each family that improves their income opportunities,” says Ariel Yépez, head of the IDB’s Energy Division.